Like many facets of the casino industry, facility architecture and design were forced to take a back seat to more immediate economic concerns as individual properties as well as entire regional gaming markets slogged through a protracted recovery from the worldwide financial crisis, a business catastrophe that the gaming industry finally appears to be putting in the rearview mirror.
Primarily fueled by a casino development boom in Asia and South America and infill opportunities in the more established American and European marketplaces, casino architects and designers are once again busily translating operator dreams and desires to physical reality. But to say it is back to business as usual after a five-year detour would be something of a misnomer; many gaming markets and consumers have undergone a profound evolution over the past half decade, and these changes are having an impact on brick-and-mortar properties and the people who have to design and develop them.
Paul Steelman, CEO of Steelman Partners, a Las Vegas-based international architectural firm that has designed projects in over 50 countries, has felt these seismic shifts, and has even identified the one that may be having the biggest current influence. “Whatever jurisdiction we’re working in and whatever language we are speaking, one item is always being brought up with the upmost importance: youmust design this property to appeal to the Chinese gambler,” said Steelman to a group of industry executives at a Global Gaming Expo (G2E) session on international design.
The growing influence of the Asian gambler on casino design was just one of many topics covered by speakers who participated in the design sessions at G2E, which took place this past September in Las Vegas. Here are a couple of the trends with the potential to impact current and future casino design that were discussed and dissected in various sessions.
Seeing the Light
Few would argue that lighting is an important component to gaming facility interior and exterior design. Here are some recent lighting product and technology releases:
HP50MR16 and HPPAR38 LEDs
As mentioned above, Asia continues to be the nexus of current casino development, with multiple projects in various stages of development throughout the region. Indeed, Steelman Partners alone has its hand in dozens of potential Asian developments, a list that includes the second-phase development of the Ho Tram Strip in Vietnam as well as the California-inspired design for Dragon Hill which will be located in the northern part of the country; the recently opened Solaire Resort & Casino in the Philippines, where the company is also involved in creating a master development plan for PAGCOR casinos in Manila; a proposed gaming area in Cambodia which will include a massive theme park and 10-12 casinos; a gaming property on the Taiwanese island of Matsu; a master plan for casino development in Vladivostok, Russia; and casino expansion and refurbishments in Sydney and other Australian cities.
The taste for casino development throughout the region is such that massive gaming projects are being announced in some pretty esoteric places, such as Yap Island, roughly 800 miles from Manila, where a Chinese developer announced plans to build the first underwater casino.
Still, no matter where these properties are based, they are being developed with one type of consumer in mind: the affluent Chinese gambler. Steelman was not the only architect or operator to notice this trend.
“Everyone is designing for the Chinese customer,” said Peter Wu, a 20-year gaming veteran who worked for casinos in Macau and Singapore and was most recently the senior vice president of international casino marketing alliances for Baha Mar in The Bahamas. “Everyone is looking to capture the Chinese customer. The challenge is that there are a lot of important elements that need to be included in a casino’s design to accomplish this task.”
To start, the casino developer and designer must be aware of the type of consumer they want to attract. Traditionally in Macau, Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, there have been two extremes: the mass-market gambler or the high-limit VIP. Recently, however, a new market segment has emerged that most developers are now targeting: the premium mass-market. According to Wu, the premium mass-market customer tends to play with cash and bet on the same level as a VIP, but without the bad debt, junket and commission headaches associated with the high-end market. “These players were lumped into the mass market but played like VIPs, without being treated like VIPs,” he said. “They were an untapped customer base and gaming companies are now starting to show them the love.”
From a development standpoint, what needs to be considered when designing a property to attract the premium mass-market Chinese gambler? Wu listed five points:
• Access—When a Chinese gambler comes to a casino resort, they are primarily interested in one thing and one thing only: to gamble. They demand quick and easy access to table games and the amenities needed to play the games longer. “While at the Sands Macau, I noticed the busiest area of the casino was a tight space sandwiched between the noodle shop, restrooms, cage and hotel lifts,” Wu said. “When it comes to gambling, the Chinese are all business, whatever market you are in. In some casinos you can actually see the wear patterns in the carpet where customers have cut corners to make a more direct beeline to the tables and slot machines.”
• Convenience—Chinese gamblers insist on having vital services at hands so they can remain longer at the machines or tables. For example, Wu described having to build special, extra-wide high-tech slot bases for the VIP gaming salons at Sands Macau so the premium players would have space to place bags, recharge phones, and store valuable items while playing. “They would charge their cell phones while playing the slot,” Wu said. “These are all elements of convenience that kept them in the salon and at the machine so they could gamble more.”
• Luxury—The premium mass-market player may come to gamble and be all business when doing so, but they also seek status at gaming resorts, and the trappings of luxury are very important to them. “The premium mass-market player likes to stay four star, eat five star and aspires to be six star,” Wu said. “That is key to a product offering; they may be too busy gambling to enjoy the luxury, but it important to them that it is available to family and friends.”
• Entertainment—The Chinese premium customer wants a facility to offer a whole host of entertainment options; not for themselves, but for the family and guests that may be staying with them. “The premium player expects there to be family-style entertainment at the resort, and to be comped with the best tickets and seats” Wu said. “It gives family and friends something to do so they can focus on the business of gambling.”
• Intimacy—Not surprising, considering the crowded nature of many Asian cities, most premium mass-market players prefer to gamble in private areas that offer a lot of space; which might explains the boom in high-limit salon development taking place at casinos in Macau and throughout Asia. “The VIP gaming salons have everything now,” Wu said. “Bathrooms, showers, tubs, massages—all the comforts. Having all these items is very important to the customer.”
While many Asian gaming projects continue to max out on size, scope and offerings, casino development elsewhere in the world is taking a different tack, especially in the mature gaming markets of the U.S. and Europe. Here, greater attention is being paid to market segmentation, and designing facilities to appeal to a specific group of consumers.
“You really need to understand who your customer is and then develop the offering to appeal to them from the outset,” said Oliver Lovat, a partner with London-based Puji Capital. “This market segmentation has already occurred in London and is now happening in Las Vegas and will probably come to Macau at some point. When you develop a resort today, you need to find a strategic position it can successfully operate from. There is no more ‘build it and they will come,’ where the developer decides for the customer what the customer wants. ”
In the U.S., the segment that seems to be garnering the most attention from developers in established markets are the Generation X and Y consumers, who are desperately needed to replace a quickly aging player base. It also helps that these groups have already proven they can be lucrative to casino resorts if they so desire—a recent article in theNew Yorker delved into the Las Vegas dance club and DJ scene, and described how these facilities were generating millions of dollars in yearly revenue for Wynn Resorts and other gaming properties.
To attract younger clientele, future casino resorts will have to be designed with something in mind besides the casino; in a word, entertainment. “Ask a 50-year-old casino resort customer what they expect from the resort experience and they will answer a good players club, a desire to be comped, better odds at the machines and so on,” Lovat said. “Ask the same question to someone from Generation X or Y, and they’ll say a good bar or a premium location.”
Indeed, non-gaming amenities are starting to take precedence in casino design. “If tax rates allow, we will feature more restaurants and entertainment activities in our designs,” Steelman said. “Some of the new facilities on the drawing board feature up to 70 restaurants.”
Some gaming companies have already taken the step to design new projects that trump entertainment over everything else. For example, The LINQ, Caesars Entertainment’s $550 million open-air retail, dining and entertainment (RDE) district located on the Las Vegas Strip, is proceeding as planned and will open its first phase in December, according to Jon Gray, a Caesars official who spoke at G2E.
Gray, who is vice president and general manager of The LINQ, said the project aims to attract a retail mix that includes new market concepts, such as the 78,000-square-foot Brooklyn Bowl concert venue, in addition to successful familiar brands such as Sprinkles Cupcakes and the Titled Kilt bar. The goal of these RDE attractions: to entice younger clientele to visit The LINQ.
“We are really going after the Gen X and Gen Y consumers with The LINQ,” Gray said. “There are studies that show these generations will comprise over 50 percent of Las Vegas visitor volume by 2015. We are spending $550 million on this project; out first big step toward providing specific RDE for Gen X and Y consumers.”
So far, the leasing of The LINQ has exceeded expectation, with retailers willing to pay above pro forma rents to be part of the project, according to Gray. “What we are pushing for is a lot of personality to come alive in the storefronts and signage points,” he said. “We have a lot of great tenants coming in and putting their best foot forward and that means there will be a lot of great energy there.”
The scheduled December opening for The LINQ will be for these RDE components, the remainder of which will come on line by February 28, according to Gray. The High Roller—a 550-foot tall wheel that will act at the primary entertainment attraction for the project—will open sometime in the first half of 2014, once it has passed a rigorous testing procedure. The High Roller will have 28 cabins attached to the wheel, each of which can carry 40 people. It will take 30 minutes for one full revolution, which means upwards of 2,200 people can ride the attraction each hour.
“It is an engineering marvel,” Gray said. “The same group that engineered it also did the Singapore Flyer and the London Eye, which was meant to be a temporary installation but became the second most popular tourist attraction in London. We learned from these projects… the entire rim of the wheel will be lit at night and each cabin will have exterior lighting through a package we can control. The whole thing will be very visual and stunning both day and night. It will become an icon on the Las Vegas Strip.”